Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-11, an act to establish a procedure for the disclosure of wrongdoings in the public sector, including the protection of persons who disclose the wrongdoings.
This is a very important piece of legislation that deals with an issue at the heart of our parliamentary democracy.
A government press release issued on the same day that Bill C-11 was introduced noted that the bill is an important part of the federal government's broader commitment to ensure transparency, accountability, financial responsibility and ethical conduct in the public sector.
With a long list of deplorable examples of government waste and mismanagement like Ms. Stewart, Mr. Radwanski, the motley crew involved in the sponsorship scandal, and the latest, Mr. Dingwall, how can anyone believe that the Liberals are seriously committed to providing real protection for whistleblowers who might expose the misconducts of their cronies?
In the 1993 election campaign, the Liberal Party promised whistleblower legislation in a letter to the Public Service Alliance of Canada. Twelve years later public sector workers are still waiting for legislation that will thoroughly protect them.
My riding of Carleton—Mississippi Mills is home to thousands of public sector employees who work all over the National Capital Region and who, to this day, remain vulnerable to reprisals from their employers should they speak out and reveal wrongdoings in their workplace. Whistleblowers play an invaluable role in cleansing our institutions of rot and corruption and we should be encouraging not discouraging them from coming forward with information.
Donald C. Rowat, professor emeritus of political science at Carleton University, an expert on whistleblower laws, stated that whistleblowers should have strong protection for two main reasons. First, if they detect wrongdoing and reveal it publicly, their accused superiors are almost sure to take vigorous retaliatory action against them. Second, if they do not reveal the wrongdoing for fear of retaliation, it may never be revealed and the public interest will seriously suffer.
Having worked inside a large government organization, I know that the potential whistleblower's fear of retaliation is well founded because nearly always, those accused of wrongdoing are higher in the organization. They can easily take action against their whistleblowing subordinates. Because there is a tendency in any organization to protect its reputation by denying any wrongdoing, it normally closes ranks and ignores or even supports the retaliatory action.
Just remember the code we learned as school children, that we do not rat on people. Those who ratted were disdained by their friends. It is no different in the adult world. The individual must bravely go against the powerful organization.
As we know, in nearly every case the whistleblower ends up losing his or her job or suffering some other form of retaliation or both. It takes real fortitude and integrity to be a whistleblower. If we already had effective whistleblower legislation, how many cases of waste, mismanagement and wrongdoing would have been remedied and how many taxpayers' dollars would have been saved?
Professor Rowat noted in his comments on whistleblower legislation that the federal government appointed a public service integrity officer in November 2001 who was supposed to investigate whistleblower allegations of wrongdoing. However, because he was appointed by the government under the policy issued by the Treasury Board, instead of a law passed by Parliament, his powers of protection were weak. He is not independent of the government and does not have the power to make binding decisions or to publicize wrongdoing.
As a result his office has been criticized as feeble and toothless based on a policy of internal rather than public disclosure. In a recent annual report he has admitted that potential whistleblowers' fear of retaliation are so great that very few come forward. Most of the complaints he has received involve personal employment grievances rather than the misdeeds of senior bureaucrats.
The professor went on to say that the provisions to protect whistleblowers in Bill C-25, the predecessor to Bill C-11, were inadequate. Anonymity was not guaranteed and the bill provided no fines or sanctions against employers who retaliated, no financial or other compensation for blatant retaliation, and no rewards for whistleblowers who save taxpayers' money as laws elsewhere have done.
Former Privy Council President Coderre claimed that the bill struck a balance between encouraging public servants to report wrongdoing and protecting against disgruntled employees with an axe to grind. This reveals that he was not clear on the concept. He picked the wrong balance.
Protection against disgruntled employees is a minor problem. The real problem is the protection of whistleblowers. The law must strike a balance between the vast power of the bureaucracy and the weakness of potential whistleblowers by providing enough protection and incentive for them to be willing to risk the wrath of superiors.
Whistleblowers are employees who exercise freedom of expression rights to challenge institutional abuses of power or illegality that harm or threaten the public interest. Whistleblowers are often the best qualified, the brightest, as well as those employees most committed to the longevity of the organization. It is this loyalty that in fact causes them to risk everything in speaking out. They represent the highest ideals of public service and loyalty to the long term interests and sustainability of the organization.
In its original form Bill C-11 would have done more harm than good to whistleblowers. Thanks to a lot of hard work by Conservatives in committee and some major reversals by the government, we now believe the opposite to be true.
The bill originally required whistleblowers to report to the president of the Public Service Commission, who is not independent. Thanks to pressure from the Conservative Party, the government has tabled amendments to create an independent commissioner to hear and investigate disclosures of wrongdoing. He will report to Parliament.
However, the bill remains flawed. The Conservative Party moved several other amendments that were rejected by other parties in committee. Conservatives are not the only ones who find this disheartening. As Ms. Nycole Turmel, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, noted in her appearance before the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates last year, “the government's reluctance to go the distance and get it right is more than a little disquieting”. Conservatives still feel that these changes should be made, and if the bill were to pass, we would make these changes when we form the government after the next election.
The bill does not prohibit reprisals against those who make disclosures of wrongdoing to the public, the media, the police, the Auditor General, the Information Commissioner or anyone outside the narrow process prescribed by the bill. A Conservative government would protect all whistleblowers.
Bill C-11 changes the Access to Information Act to allow departments to refuse to release information about internal disclosures of wrongdoing for five years. This was originally 20 years, but was amended in committee. The Conservative Party would like to see this provision removed completely and the Information Commissioner agrees. If this provision had been in effect at the time, taxpayers would still not know that their money had been siphoned off from the sponsorship program and funnelled into the Liberal Party.
Cabinet can arbitrarily remove several government bodies from the protection of Bill C-11. For example, if they choose, cabinet can remove the Bank of Canada, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, the Canada Council for the Arts, the CBC, the National Arts Centre Corporation, the Public Sector Pension and Investment Board and Telefilm Canada. Conservatives tried to change this in committee, but the other parties refused. A Conservative government would ensure cabinet cannot remove any government body from the scope of the act.
Unfortunately, the scope of the bill is still too limited in its application. Specifically, the Canadian Forces, CSIS and CSE are excluded from the provisions of the act that provides for access to a neutral and independent body. The application of this bill in their work environments will encourage silence rather than disclosure.
Members of the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service and Communications Security Establishment are precisely the ones that should have whistleblower protection. Their work is veiled in secrecy. What better environment for wrongdoing to take place without consequences?
Members of these organizations need the powers of a neutral third party to protect the privacy and confidentiality of information while at the same time offering protection to whistleblowers. There is no valid basis for the exclusion of any government employees from the protection of the bill.
Since 1999 opposition MPs and senators have introduced 13 bills to protect whistleblowers. If the Liberals were really serious about this matter, they could have adopted the legislation of any one of these bills. Instead, they have waited until they are faced with a huge scandal and have acted to give the appearance that they are doing something.
I support the need for a whistleblowers bill to protect government from wrongdoing and also to protect those brave individuals who place their careers on the line to ensure that justice is done.
Bill C-11 certainly offers an improvement to the current situation, but it is flawed. What is really needed is legislation with no exclusions of any government employees regardless of the nature of their work, as well as real protection from reprisals. Until that happens we Conservatives consider that government whistleblower protection remains inadequate and incomplete.